I love Christmas time. It is, hands down, my favourite season. I love the lights, the parties, the colours, the snowiness, but best of all I love the food!
There is absolutely nothing that tastes like Christmas more for me than Nanaimo Bars. Except maybe mandarin oranges.
My mom used to make Nanaimo Bars every year for Christmas, and only for Christmas. I'm pretty sure she hated making them, but knew we loved them and loved us enough to suffer through. One Christmas after I got married, I decided to learn how to make them. On our honeymoon to Nanaimo, the Vancouver Island city that the bars are named for, we received a couple of Nanaimo Bars in our bed and breakfast room each day. I looked around online and found that the city has an official recipe. I took that recipe and, after a few tries and minor adaptations, found the perfect recipe for here in Calgary. My mom doesn't make Nanaimos anymore - that's my job.
I've discovered that the process I use for making these delicious bits of chocolate heaven is just as important as the right amounts of ingredients. So I've taken lots of photos and will describe all the tips I have as we go along.
Nanaimo Bars are made in 3 layers: a no-bake-cookie-like bottom layer, a middle layer of custardy buttercream, and a top layer of decadent semi-sweet chocolate. Let's start with the base.
Gather your ingredients. You'll notice that mine are almost all No-Name. It might taste better with brand name, but I've always been happy with the results I get with these. You'll be stirring almost constantly, so it helps to have everything set out and measured ahead of time.
Then, before you start cooking anything, prepare your pan. You'll want a 8x8 square pan. You'll need to line it in parchment. This will allow you to lift the whole thing out of the pan in order to cut them - crucial if you want nice straight cuts. In order to make the parchment fit, I push my piece of paper into the pan with both hands, then scratch inside each corner with my fingernails. This leaves a mark that helps in the next step.
Pull the paper out of the pan and cut out the corners, using the scratch marks as the stop. See the picture for a better idea - I can't describe this very well. Then put the paper back in the pan. It should sit pretty nicely now.
Set up your double boiler. If you don't have one (I don't), then make your own! All you'll need is a large glass bowl, and a medium pot. Make sure that the bowl rests on the edges of the pot, and does NOT sit in the water you'll be putting in the pot. Put about half and inch of water in the bottom of the pot, and heat it up to simmering. You want the water to be low enough that it's not touching the bottom of the bowl.
Put the butter, sugar, and cocoa in the bowl. I don't always put them in all at once. It is a little easier to mix if you let the butter get mostly melted before you add the sugar and cocoa.
A note here on the butter. I didn't have any unsalted butter today, and for the first time I just made them with the salted butter I had on hand. Don't. They are too salty, and there's no salt in the recipe to reduce. So you really need the unsalted butter. Now I know.
Heat and stir the butter, sugar, and cocoa until everything is melted and mixed well. Then add the egg and keep stirring. At first it will look like this:
Keep heating and stirring, and the oil will start to separate and look like this:
Keep stirring, you're almost there. When it's ready, it will look like this, very smooth and cohesive:
As soon as you get to this stage, take it off the heat, dump in the graham crumbs and the coconut, and stir until it's all mixed well. Press it into the prepared pan, making it as smooth as you can.
Whew, you're done the hardest part. And really, it wasn't too bad, was it? Now, let the base cool in the fridge until it's not warm to the touch anymore. In the meantime, prepare your middle layer.
In a mixer bowl, cream the butter and custard powder together. Then add the cream and mix for a bit. I rarely buy cream just for Nanaimo Bars, since it takes to little. Whenever I have leftover cream from another project (last time it was pumpkin pie), I freeze it in ice cube trays in the right amounts, so I always have it handy. I have also used whole milk, though my husband says it's not quite as good.
Add the icing sugar. I hate it when I get icing sugar all over my kitchen, so I add it half a cup at a time, and cover the mixer with a dish towel. Mix it all up until it has the consistency of stiff buttercream icing. You may need to add more than the 2 cups listed, depending on your temperature and humidity. You want it to be good and stiff.
Spread the buttercream over the base. It's going to be all lumpy, like this:
Here's the trick to getting it smooth. Cover it with a piece of waxed paper and smooth it with your fingers. Put it back in the fridge for an hour or more. You want the buttercream to harden enough that the wax paper will come off easily. It works, I promise. I didn't leave mine in the fridge long enough, but it still worked.
And now for the easiest layer - the chocolate.
You'll use the double boiler again for this, unless you're good at melting chocolate in the microwave. I'm not. It never works out for me, so I stick to the double boiler.
It is crucial that you don't get any water in with the chocolate, so if you use the same bowl as you did for the base layer, wash it and dry it well.
Melt the chocolate and butter slowly in the bowl until it is smooth or almost smooth. If there are a few little lumps of chocolate left in the bowl when you take it off the pot, the residual heat in the melted chocolate will take care of them.
Now. Let the chocolate sit in the bowl for about 5 or 10 minutes. You want it to cool a little, but still be very liquid. Pour the chocolate onto the buttercream layer.
And here's where I wish I had a video setup to show you what I do next. I shake the pan. Keep it flat on the counter at first, and shake it back and forth and side to side to spread the chocolate. You will need to pick it up and tilt it slightly to get it into the corners. If you didn't overcook the chocolate, or let it cool too much, this shaking is all you will need to get a really smooth finish on the top. Don't use a spatula, unless it's really not working. They will taste just as good if they don't look great, but you'll get lots of compliments if the top is smooth.
And here's the next big tip I have. DON'T put them in the fridge yet. Let them cool on the counter. In an hour or so, they'll be ready to cut. If you cool the chocolate hard in the fridge, it will just crack when you try to cut them. If you have to put them in the fridge right away (soccer practice, toddler backed up the toilet with his toy hammer...) then make sure to let the chocolate come to room temperature later when you get them out to cut them.
Lift them out with the parchment paper, then peel the paper down off the sides. Using a long, sharp, dry knife, cut them into bars of whatever size you want. My favourite is 1-inch squares. They are bite sized, great for parties, and a treat that small couldn't possibly have any calories, could it?
Adapted from Official City of Nanaimo Recipe
½ Cup Unsalted Butter
¼ Cup White Sugar
5 Tbsp Cocoa Powder
1 Cup Graham Crumbs
1 Cup Shredded, Unsweetened Coconut
Middle (Custard) Layer:
½ Cup Unsalted Butter
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp Cream
2 Tbsp Vanilla Custard Powder
2+ Cups Icing Sugar
6 Squares Baker’s Semisweet Chocolate
2 Tbsp Butter